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The 5 Best TED Talks for HR Professionals

eveloping your HR skills and growing your human resources career calls for a range of tactics. From studying a professional qualification, through to finding a mentor, the possibilities are vast.

But, if you’re strapped for time, there’s one relatively effort-free activity you can do to improve your knowledge.

Watch a TED Talk!

The basic premise of a TED Talk (if you’ve been living under a rock) is this: an industry-expert delivers a short talk on a thought-provoking subject, usually on something surprising. Hence, they’re a great resource to use for keeping up to date with the latest industry thinking.

The good news is that TED Talks cover HR issues in a lot of detail, with some amazing speakers having contributed their ideas over the years.

So, if you’ve got a few minutes to spare and want to boost your knowledge, here are 5 of the best TED Talks for HR professionals you should check out.

1. ‘Color blind, colour brave’ by Mellody Hobson

Bringing up the topic of race in a workplace or social setting is the “conversational equivalent of touching the third rail,” argues Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, in this poignant, refreshing and honest talk. “There’s shock followed by a long silence.”

It’s a topic that a lot of HR professionals can feel awkward discussing, so it’s refreshing to see it tackled so candidly here.

Exploring her own experience of race and discrimination, Hobson argues that the business world needs to be more bold — or ‘colour brave’ — when it comes to openly speaking about racial disparities. To Hobson, professionals can often shy away from these difficult questions. She argues that the only way race disparities will be solved is by being open and honest about them. We can ignore them, but they won’t go away.

“The first step to solving a problem is to not hide from it,” she argues, “And the first step to action is awareness.”

Key takeaway: Racial disparities are real and businesses need to face them head on, being honest about them. We need to be ‘colour brave’ when talking about race.

2. ‘The way we think about work is broken’ by Barry Schwartz

“Why do we work?" psychology professor Barry Schwartz opens. “Why do we drag ourselves out of bed every morning instead of living our lives?”

This thought-provoking exploration of what makes work meaningful is a fascinating watch, especially if you’re interested in motivation and how work shapes human nature.

To Schwartz, the answer is deeper than just an issue of pay — it’s to do with how our underlying assumptions about human nature end up influencing our nature. “It is not true that you ‘just can't get good help anymore,’” he argues. “It is true that you ‘can't get good help anymore’ when you give people work to do that is demeaning and soulless.”

Schwartz argues that false ideas about human beings just don’t go away. They actually become reinforced through the structures that we make.

He implores us to heed the lessons of the Industrial Revolution and think carefully about “Just what kind of human nature do you want to help design?”

Key takeaway: The way we run and manage our businesses shapes human nature. We have an ethical responsibility to try to make work for employees meaningful and not soulless.

3. ‘Forget the pecking order at work’ by Margaret Heffernan

The hilarious/terrifying (delete as appropriate) story about the unfortunate group of chickens that underscores Margaret Heffernan’s talk is likely to stick with you throughout your career in HR (no spoilers!)

It raises an interesting point about the focus of HR in a company — what if it is cooperation and not competition that creates success? What if the accepted wisdom we were taught was actually wrong?

Margaret Heffernan’s impressive career has shown her one thing — that successful teams are built on the contribution of everyone, and not just the ‘superstars’. To her, it is cooperation, and not competition, that creates success.

“All my life I've been told that the way we have to get ahead is to compete: get into the right school, get into the right job, get to the top, and I've really never found it very inspiring,” she states.

What matters to Heffernan is the ‘mortar’ — the people in a team who have strong personal relationships and are interdependent on each other — and not the ‘bricks’ — the superstar individuals. It’s this closeness between people, and a willingness to ask for help, that fosters the resilience and success that companies crave.

Key takeaway: Social capital not competition is the key driver of success in teams.

4. ‘How great leaders inspire action’ by Simon Sinek

How do you genuinely inspire employees? That’s a question that some HR professionals spend their entire careers trying to find an answer to. The good news is that Simon Sinek might just have an answer for you.

“People don't buy what you do; people buy why you do it,” he argues. In other words, inspiring people is about engaging them on an emotional, rather than a rational level.

Sinek’s thinking is that the human brain is more receptive to communication from the ‘inside out’ rather than the ‘outside in’. Put simply, areas of the brain that control decision-making and emotions respond better to communication aimed at feelings, rather than rationality.

“The inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry — all think, act and communicate from the inside out,” Sinek states. They focus on communicating their mission – the heart of their organisation — in everything they do.’

Key takeaway: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

5. ‘The workforce crisis of 2030 — and how to start solving it now’ by Rainer Strack

Rainer Strack, HR expert at BCG, has some startling news for every hard-pressed hiring manager out there — finding the right workers in the future is going to get difficult (if it wasn’t already). Very difficult.

Why? Well, that’s complicated. But the biggest reason is that the majority of the active workforce today will have retired by 2030, and there won’t be enough workers to replace them or their skills.

Add in long-term problems with skills-distribution and toxic working-cultures at companies, and you’ve got a big problem. “We will face a global workforce crisis which consists of an overall labour shortage, plus a huge skill mismatch, plus a big cultural challenge,” he argues.

Strack proposes some interesting solutions to these challenges, which are grounded in evidence from surveys with jobseekers. Chief among these is a focus on recognising the efforts of people, having a good work-life balance, and developing relationships with colleagues.

Key takeway: A labour demand crisis, skills mismatch and culture problems are likely to make hiring the right employees even more difficult by 2030, unless we take action now.


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